Fifty years ago, on the evening of Nov. 9, Nazi thugs attacked Jews and their institutions throughout Germany--a vicious, violent assault that foreshadowed the Holocaust.
That dreadful evening in 1938 has gone down in history as Kristallnacht --"crystal night," which is sometimes called the "night of the broken glass," a phrase coined by the Nazis. But that characterization is deeply resented by Jews today since it conjures up images only of shattered windows, glass shards and fragments on the streets, rather than a pogrom, or unprovoked persecution and massacre, that the event really was.
Synagogues were destroyed across the Third Reich, in large cities and small towns, wherever Germany's 550,000 Jews lived, worked and prayed. As many as 1,118 places of worship were desecrated in Germany and Austria. At the time, official figures put the number of synagogues vandalized at a mere 195.
Jewish homes were broken into everywhere and many set ablaze. Non-Jewish friends and neighbors joined in the abuse, beatings and destruction, or stood by, watching. Firemen and police also watched without interfering.
The official death toll of Jewish victims was set at 36, but historians subsequently have estimated fatalities as high as 1,000. In addition to the deaths and destruction during that fiery night and the next day, about 30,000 Jews were seized and sent to concentration camps, the beginning of the darkest period in German history.
Kristallnacht gave the world its first look at Nazi anti-Semitic terror.
"It was the end for German Jewry," said Georg Heuberger, director of the Jewish museum that will be opened here Wednesday to mark the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht. "And it was the beginning of the process of destroying millions of Jews in Europe.
"Remember, this was peacetime, in the middle of Europe, against a Jewish population that had been living here and contributing for centuries."
Planned Well in Advance
As the 42-year-old Heuberger pointed out, the Kristallnacht pogrom had been planned well in advance: Adolf Hitler was only waiting for an excuse, which was provided when a young Polish Jew, Herschel Grynzspan, reacting to the deportation of his family from Germany, assassinated a diplomat, Ernst von Rath, at the German Embassy in Paris a few days before.
To commemorate the appalling events of Nov. 9-10, 1938, civic leaders in all parts of Germany are holding a variety of observances.
In Frankfurt, a restored synagogue will be opened by West German President Richard von Weizsaecker and Chancellor Helmut Kohl along with leading members of the Jewish community. And the Jewish Museum will open its doors in an old mansion along the Main River that belonged to the Frankfurt branch of the Rothschild banking family.
The building, which survived Kristallnacht and wartime bombing, houses an exhibit that incorporates audio-visual displays tracing the history of Jews in Germany, how they contributed to Frankfurt itself (and how they were deported), as well as explaining some basics of Jewish life, religion, and customs.
"It's an educational presentation to tell visitors about Jewish life," said Heuberger.
While Frankfurt is one focal point of the commemoration, major observances will also be held at the Bundestag--the federal legislature in Bonn--and in West and East Berlin.
"Hundreds of smaller towns have prepared exhibits to show what happened in their own community, whether the local synagogue was burned down or sold," said Eckhard von Nordheim, a Protestant minister who heads the Society for Christian-Jewish Cooperation in West Germany.
In East Germany, the Parliament will hold a special session and other ceremonies will include laying a foundation stone at a war-ravaged East Berlin synagogue being renovated as a museum and cultural center. Books, films, plays, articles and a big exhibition are also being used to depict the pogrom and its consequences.
Silence and Sorrow
Roman Catholic bishops in East and West Germany and Austria have also recalled with sorrow the silence of the church during Kristallnacht --and later--and have declared in a recent, widely circulated statement that they now accept "the burden of history."
The leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, Hans-Jochen Vogel, said of the commemorations: "No one can be held responsible for the guilt of their fathers and mothers, but we must accept this part of our history and live with it."
West Germany's Social Democrats have already organized one symposium at which Jewish survivors of Kristallnacht described their experiences to high school students.
"The loneliness of the Jews then had such a quality of finality that it hasn't really been overcome even today," said Gad Beck, head of a Jewish elementary school in West Berlin.
"I was 15 years old but I remember that after we found the synagogue burned, I saw an older man wailing: 'We have no more place to meet. What are we going to do now?'
"It wasn't so important to him that his shop had been wrecked. It was the synagogue that was burning in his own heart."
Current Status Reviewed
The 50th anniversary of the pogrom has also prompted examination of the situation of Jews in Germany today, a community reduced to 30,000 (only 400 in East Germany). It is a community deeply shaken by a scandal this year when it was revealed that the late Jewish leader Werner Nachmann had diverted to personal use huge sums from a reparations fund paid to the Jews by the West German government.
His successor, Heinz Galinski, 75, chairman of the Central Council of German Jews, who survived Auschwitz and lives in West Berlin, said in an interview: "All in all, the life of the Jews in Germany today is normal."
But he added: "We do not yet have normal relations with the people we are living among. The split was too deep. There is still much to be done, so that people will never forget what happened."
And Herbert Strauss, a 70-year-old American professor who is head of the Center for Anti-Semitism Research at West Berlin's Technical University, said that a recent survey he conducted in Germany found anti-Jewish prejudice among 15% of the respondents.
On a Downward Trend
But he noted in a conversation, "The 15% who reacted negatively were over 60 years old, were in the poorer job categories and had less education." This, he said, indicated that anti-Semitism is on a downward trend among the German population as a whole.
But Strauss added that most Germans want to draw a line through the past, "to open a new page," and that continuing stories in the media about the Holocaust, in which the Nazis killed 6 million Jews, might have a negative effect among younger Germans today.
"Latent anti-Semitism is something to be aware of," he said, but "the conditions for using anti-Semitism as a political tool are relatively limited today. Germans have learned that anti-Semitism is not a good guide to reality."
Still, Strauss cautioned that one reason for the decline of overt anti-Semitism is that in a nation with only 30,000 Jews among a population of 61 million, "there are not enough Jews around to serve as targets."
Looking to the future, what concerns Jewish leaders like Frankfurt's Heuberger is the need for a kind of critical mass in the number of Jews in any single German city to make the community self-sustaining.
"I think our larger Jewish communities in Frankfurt, Berlin and Munich will continue to grow," he said. "But to lead a Jewish life, you need a certain community in which to function--to support synagogues, schools, centers, kosher-food facilities and so on. Those Jewish communities with only 1,000 to 2,000 people--in Cologne, Duesseldorf and Hamburg--will find it very hard to remain active.
"And I'm afraid the smaller communities will find it very difficult to be self-sustaining at all."
Like other Jewish leaders, Heuberger believes that occasional, isolated reports of cemetery vandalism or the activities of neo-Nazi groups should not be overemphasized.
"West Germany is a democratic, pluralist society, and most Jews feel basically safe," he said. "It is a mistake not to see that anti-Semitism which exists. And there is always the danger of Middle East terrorists. That's why police sometimes guard our schools, synagogues and cemeteries.
"But while we can never ignore the dangers of terrorism or anti-Semitism, I think that it is also a mistake to exaggerate them--or to panic."